“I love this job,” said 73-year-old CBS News anchor Dan Rather on Tuesday, Nov. 23, a few hours after he announced that he would retire as managing editor and anchor of the CBS Evening News, and 41 years and one day after he reported that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, where he was CBS News’ bureau chief.
“You know, my late father, one of his favorite sayings to my brother and sister and I was, ‘The first thing is to last,’” said Mr. Rather. “But nothing lasts forever. And certainly there were times I was conflicted about, ‘Well, gosh, I’d like to make it another week, another month, another season,’ but with that, sometimes at the same time, sometimes at another time, the wee, small voice would say, ‘Yeah, but, you know, that’s not practical.’
“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Well, weren’t you trying to get to the 25th anniversary?’ And I said, ‘Truthfully, no, I was trying to get to the 35th anniversary.’ But life’s not like that.”
Mr. Rather said he’d consulted with CBS president Les Moonves, his agent Richard Liebner, his wife Jean, and even his daughter and son when he made his choice. But in the end, Mr. Rather listened to what he described as a “wee, small voice” when he decided to exit the position much earlier than his contract allowed for.
Mr. Rather said Mr. Moonves had been instrumental in walking him through his exit with a sense of dignity and class. And Mr. Rather deserved the kind of glamorous send-off you’d expect for a man who has strode across the most significant battlefields and political warpaths of recent history.
“Les Moonves has been terrific through all this,” said Mr. Rather. “This guy, he actually watches news. And he’s so sensitive to the CBS News traditions and history, and also is sensitive enough to know these kinds of decisions are never easy to make when you’ve been doing something for 24 years and you love it as I do. I’m really lucky that I’ve dealt with him, particularly in the last two or three weeks.”
Indeed, it was a little hard to believe that Mr. Rather was finally letting loose his grip on his coveted role in American journalism-a position he had fought for, and one that was essentially inseparable from his own identity, as the dark-eyed, beetle-browed newsman who elbowed his way through history like Jack Palance as Forrest Gump, facing off with Richard M. Nixon at the National Broadcasters Convention in Houston, in one of the great confrontations in television history-”Are you running for something?” “No sir, Mr. President, are you?”-or George H.W. Bush on live television. Mr. Rather had transformed the anchor role of mellow-toned Walter Cronkite into a rugged, mud-spattered gig-the reporter-anchor-and not just a desk job. He was Gunga Dan, as Tom Shales had dubbed him, a man unafraid to wear a turban on a national news program, a newsman chasing big game who also played a newsman chasing big game on TV.
He went out in the world, and we saw it on CBS.
“And a lot of people said, ‘Listen, Dan, you have to set the trench coat and the bush jacket and the flak jacket aside now,’” he recalled, “that anchoring is a whole different thing …. I listened carefully to that and I took it seriously, and I knew that people had my best interest at heart. ‘You’re probably right, but,’ I said, ‘that’s not me.’ And we invented and innovated on the mobile anchor, and we pioneered taking the whole broadcast-not just part of the broadcast, but the whole broadcast-where big news was breaking.”
And although it was clearly impossible to choose his most significant historical moment-Vietnam? Iraq?-he was particularly proud of his coverage in Afghanistan circa 1980, when the Soviets fought the mujahadeen. And Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989, when students faced down tanks for their freedom. They weren’t just historical-it was news, in the good old-fashioned sense, when news meant events that moved many people, and CBS had beaten the competition.
“We were there as it happened, not after it happened,” Mr. Rather said.
And then there was Saddam Hussein.
“The Saddam interviews-I know not everybody thought they were good or worth doing or what have you,” he said, “but by any objective standards, any journalist worthy of the name would’ve killed to have those interviews.”
In all of that, though, it was easy to imagine the angle that would dominate the coverage of his retirement-an angle that even he seemed to allow was impossible to ignore. After all, since Mr. Rather’s 60 Minutes II report on George W. Bush’s National Guard service on Sept. 8-which used the now-infamous forged memos to prove Mr. Bush had shirked his duties in the early 1970′s-speculation has mounted that network executives were eager to see him out.
“Everybody is going to write what they’re going to write, think what they’re going to think,” said Mr. Rather, “but we know the fact of the situation is, my stepping out of the anchor chair is not connected to the storm over the 60 Minutes weekday story … this is separate and apart from that.”
According to Mr. Rather, CBS first popped the idea of his retirement as early as 1999, asking him how he felt about the idea. He didn’t think much of it; he wanted to stay on as long as he had his health, he said. And after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, any suggestion that he step down was further put off-and Dan Rather, in top Dan Rather form, soon scored the biggest interview on earth when he was invited into Saddam Hussein’s palace in 2003.
But time passed, and his ratings against ABC News’ Peter Jennings and NBC News’ Tom Brokaw, though consistent, remained weak.
“We began talking in earnest this summer about, ‘O.K., O.K., I’m beginning to feel the time is nigh,’” said Mr. Rather, “and they say, ‘Well, you know, we’re kind of thinking the same thing.’
“It would be a mistake to write that I was ‘agonizing’ over it,” he continued. “It wasn’t that … it just felt right. And I frequently said to myself, ‘You’ll know when it feels right.’ And I can’t truthfully say I never had any doubt about that, but generally it was, ‘O.K., I’ll know when it feels right.’ And last summer, it began to feel right to me.”
Mr. Rather and Mr. Moonves decided the announcement should come after the election. But Mr. Rather said he was concerned about upstaging Mr. Brokaw, who is set to retire on Dec. 1. So this was the week.
“You know as well as I do, Thanksgiving week is not the kind of week to make this kind of announcement,” said Mr. Rather. “But if we waited another week-next week should be Tom Brokaw’s week …. My sense of it was, I don’t want to step down next week-that should belong to Tom.”
By e-mail, Mr. Brokaw said of Mr. Rather: “I only wish him well. He’s been a tough but fair competitor and a boon companion all these years. Maybe we’ll get an old anchormen’s park bench in Central Park and feed the pigeons together.”
If Mr. Rather had regrets, he was keeping them inside. He was still hotter than a grasshopper on a potbellied stove in July. He was, in his own trademark manner, both roiling and serene, philosophical, enigmatic, driven.
“Life,” said Mr. Rather, echoing Oscar Wilde, “is never pure and rarely simple.”
When Senator John Kerry finally came out of hiding on Friday, Nov. 19, and posted a new message on his Presidential campaign Web site, who was holding their breath?
An army of barefoot, pajama-wearing bloggers-and their general, the host of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann.
“Regardless of the outcome of this election,” intoned Mr. Kerry in a video clip linked to the site, “once all the votes are counted-and they will be counted-we will continue to challenge this administration.”
“It looks like an M.C. Escher drawing,” Mr. Olbermann said in an interview the following Monday. “Is it past or future tense? Is he recounting or not?”
The bespectacled newsman has dedicated numerous broadcasts and copious blogging hours to “voting irregularities” since Nov. 8-every scrap of evidence or even feeble insinuation was kindling for a burning obsession that has largely been dismissed elsewhere in TV-land. Nowadays, Countdown is Recountdown.
When pressed, even Mr. Kerry’s legal counsel in Ohio, Daniel Hoffheimer, quickly deflated the fantasy that a ragtag group of voting irregularities-or their ragtag army of chroniclers on the Web-could reverse Ohio from red to blue.
“We don’t expect the recount to change what the official count will be,” he said. “I don’t foresee any big story there.”
But long odds make big payoffs-except when they don’t-and Mr. Olbermann is a betting man.
Nineteen months into his latest TV incarnation-having gone from disgruntled ESPN guy to disgruntled NBC News guy to disgruntled Fox Sports guy and back to NBC-the 45-year-old Mr. Olbermann is going Watergate on the Ohio recount, making his show a major-media beachhead for dozens of lefty quasi-conspiracy theorists who clearly wanted to one-up the guys who hog-tied Dan Rather over the summer.
These bloggers, said Mr. Olbermann, were his allies: They “can go places I can’t go. They are my minions-like an unpaid research staff.”
A former sportscaster with a Letterman-era sense of irony-a suppressed smarty-pants smirk that hasn’t exactly captured the imagination of the masses-Mr. Olbermann shares with these folks a baseball-card collector’s penchant for obscure data and a sometimes tedious if highly principled interest in below-the-radar minutiae.
“Purely as a story, this could be as trivial as hypothetical irregularities in the Baseball Hall of Fame voting and it would still pique my interest,” said Mr. Olbermann. “Because at the bottom line, something atypical happened here, and that, I believe, is at the heart of news.”
Mr. Olbermann’s fixation on the vote-count story was stoked again on Monday evening, when the Ohio Democratic Party announced that it would join with the Green and Libertarian parties in pursuing a recount in the state of Ohio, offering the remote possibility of a reversal in the outcome of the 2004 Presidential election. At 7:12 p.m. that day, Mr. Olbermann e-mailed to say, “I think it kinda just went mainstream.”
But it kinda just didn’t. Newsweek political correspondent Howard Fineman came on to the show and acted as Mr. Olbermann’s enabler: “They [the Kerry campaign] keep saying these little things designed to make clear, at least to their supporters and the whole blogosphere out there, that they take the possibility [of a Kerry victory] and the need for a recount seriously.”
Mr. Olbermann’s pull as a broadcaster appears to have peaked at just short of 600,000 viewers a night, on average-a quarter that of Fox News star Bill O’Reilly, his declared nemesis, to whom he now refers as “my loofah-wielding friend.” On Friday, Nov. 19, Mr. Olbermann sat at a corner booth at Osteria del Circo on West 55th Street, his lovely publicist by his side, enjoying the waning hours of his week-long vacation-one in which he’d blogged 6,000 words on the vote-counting story on his own Web log, Bloggermann.
Off-camera, Mr. Olbermann looked a bit like Don Johnson’s seedy stunt double on lunch break: tan sports jacket (no tie), rimless glasses perched on his nose, and a shadow of salt-and-pepper stubble across his face.
“I have no overwhelming loyalty to anything other than: get out a flag and wave it back and forth-the truth,” he said. “The election story involves newspapers, radio, television, magazines, investigative reporters of all kinds being so comfortable in the rut they have created for themselves that they cannot recognize a great story when they see it.
“I think it’s intellectual laziness and journalistic laziness,” he explained, carving his way through a tuna steak. “There are a lot of people who are working on this, and it’s interesting that the Net has kind of taken over what used to be the built-in function of newspapers and, to some degree, television and radio-the investigatory ‘Huh?’ factor. You know: ‘Is this real? Let me just look into this for a couple of hours.’”
But both The New York Times and The Washington Post had already shot down multiple Web rumors around “Votergate 2004,” as the bloggers have called it, and concluded that even if all the irregular votes were tipped to Mr. Kerry, it wouldn’t change the outcome.
“Ultimately, none of the most popular theories holds up to close scrutiny,” wrote The Post. “And the people who most stand to benefit from the conspiracy theories-the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee-are not biting.”
It was enough to keep Mr. Olbermann chomping at it harder than he had since he reminded his blog readers on Nov. 7 that Mr. Kerry’s concession speech was not legally binding. And at the very least, he figured, his show was bringing attention to the rotting underbelly of the American democratic process.
In his view, the media’s inattention was a failure of the imagination-a failure to conceive of the election being reversed by new facts on the ground. In his blog, he was moved to “envision the far-fetched scenario of some dramatic, conclusive new result from Ohio turning up around, say, January 4th. What congressman or senator in his right mind would vote to seat the candidate who lost the popular vote in Ohio?”
For inspiration, Mr. Olbermann thinks of Archibald Cox, the beleaguered Nixon-appointed Watergate prosecutor, who once received bags of telegrams encouraging him to “Hang in there.”
And so, however far-fetched his project, Mr. Olbermann-a Watergate buff-dug in his heels. One out of every 20 e-mails he has received “literally says, ‘Hang in there. Keep doing it.’ And it’s been very moving and very eye-opening.”
And so down the wormhole he went.
It didn’t bother Mr. Olbermann that most of his cheerleaders were Web-based Democrats. He said he read a number of blogs, including the left-wing Daily Kos and the right-wing National Debate. But his online support has persisted among the true believers, left-wing sites like Common Dreams and Consortium News. Responses from detractors tended to be belligerently uninformative. “I have seen most of the responses from partisan Republicans, and they mostly consist of: ‘Shut up,’ ‘Get a life,’ ‘You’re hurting our troops,’ ‘You should go back to ESPN,’ ‘What does a sportscaster know about it anyway?’, ‘Red states rule,’” he said. “All I know is the Democratic ones seem to be a lot more reasonable and offer a lot more evidence that is against their interest.”
For his part, he’s invited vote-fraud pooh-poohers on the air and let them have their say-fair and balanced. And if Mr. Olbermann was angry, he didn’t show it. But he did say that if he’d stayed at NBC in the late 1990′s instead of departing for Fox Sports, he would now have the same ratings as Mr. O’Reilly-over 2 million a night, or close to it. “If I hadn’t left,” he said, “we’d be doing about as well as O’Reilly is now.”
That may have been Mr. Olbermann’s nuttiest theory yet. But it didn’t matter, because he did leave, after growing famously dissatisfied and bored with the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal that ate up the TV set. “We did 228 consecutive shows that were entirely or nearly entirely about it,” he said. “It was like forecasting the weather in Los Angeles.”
Phil Griffin, the vice president for prime-time programming at MSNBC, who has known Mr. Olbermann since the early 1980′s, said that Mr. Olbermann was in the process of finally breaking through-and it wasn’t because he was a partisan.
“I don’t think there’s an agenda other than, it’s Keith,” he said. “All the stars are aligned for Keith right now. He’s perfect for this new age of journalism.”
“It’s the most egotistical thing I could say, so I know you’ll use it, but it’s true,” said Mr. Olbermann. “Sometimes we sit there at the end of the show and go, ‘It’s too bad more people didn’t see this. See what they missed?’”
Follow Joe Hagan via RSS.